Today, I had tickets to see a special matinee performance of Terayama Shûji's play Den'en ni Shisu (To Die in the Countryside) in Asagaya, so I decided to make a full day of it cruising around the Chûô Line suburbs of Western Tokyo on my bike. It was a beautiful crisp and cool day, perfect for puttering around the old school restaurants and used book stores in laid back areas like Asagaya and Ogikubo before and after the play. Ogikubo is well-reknowned as one of the most important ramen areas of Tokyo, so I figured that this would be a good opportunity to check out what it was all about.
A bit of googling around revealed that traditional Ogikubo-style ramen consists of very thin, brown oily soup made primarily of chicken stock and shôyû (soy sauce) - traditional Tokyo yatai (street stall) taste all the way. The most reknowned shop serving Ogikubo ramen is Chûka Soba Harukiya, founded way back in 1949, a mere 200 meters from the station and the kind of shop that has a line out the door at any hour of the day or night. However, upon consulting my ramen guide's index, not one but two Harukiyas in Ogikubo turned up; furthermore, although the names are the same after transliteration, their proper names in Kanji are subtly but crucially different - one 春木屋 and one 春木家. Both translate roughly to "House of Haruki", with the nuance of the first being a lineage to the house through the store, the second through the family.
Harukiya the latter (with the 家 character), properly called 春木家本店 (Harukiya Honten), turns out to be even older than Harukiya the former (with the 屋), tracing its history all the way back to 1931, a true dinosaur of a ramen shop. What exactly was going on here? The two must surely be related - two shops only a few hundred meters apart serving the same style of ramen couldn't be a coincide. Was there a falling out, a trademark war, or what? I felt shades of Ray's - that is the New York pizza place (or places) whose convoluted genealogy seems to be a myth lost to history. Which came first, Famous Ray's, Original Ray's, Famous Original Ray's, or just Ray's? The same question haunted me when it came to Harukiya. (Ray's photo borrowed from the web). Although Harukiya Honten (家) is nearly 20 years older, Chûka Harukiya（屋）seems to be by far the more famous of the two and the one regarded in both the guide book and on the Supleks Ramen Database as the ganso (ancestor) of Ogikubo style.
After a good amount of googling, I finally found an explanation, albeit a third-hand word of mouth one - Harukiya Honten came first, and in the lean years after the war, one of the cooks taught a relative the ramen recipe in order to try and help him making a living - that relative's shop became Harukiya Chûka. The years passed and Chûka changed hands to the point where the owners no longer had any relationship to the original family that ran the Honten shop; by the present day the two shops had come to share the same basic recipe and the same name, but nothing else.
There was only one way to figure out what was really going on and which Harukiya was superior, namely to eat at both of them within a half an hour of each other. After all, what was at stake was nothing less than the claim to the "famous original" Tokyo-style shôyû ramen. Fortunately I could work off the calories on the 15 km round trip bike ride. I parked my bike at about 11:30 and set off to find Harukiya Honten, figuring I would start with the old then go to the new, with "new" being a somewhat relative term when talking about a shop that has been doing business for 59 years.
Luckily for me, I had not only my guidebook but a full-scale detailed atlas, since without an exact schematic of the block numbers my plan may have never gotten off the ground floor. Harukiya Honten is way off the main drag, in the midst of a quiet residential block far from the hustle and bustle (relatively speaking) of Ogikubo Station. In fact, Harukiya is such an institution that the shop has lent its name to the entire apartment building on the ground floor of which it's located!
From the outside, Harukiya Honten looked to be far larger than the average ramen shop, an obsevation which proved to be true in spades. Opening the door and walking in was like slipping back in time - Harukiya Honten is not a ramen shop, but an early-Showa era soba shop and neighborhood cafeteria. A wide room filled with dark wood and hanging globe lamps greeted me, along with a 60-ish woman with an intense dye job. I was easily the only person under 50 in the restaurant, with a few haggard-looking regulars slurping away to the sounds of soft jazz. Besides the main dining room, there were sets of traditional floor seating off to one side.
When I ordered my ramen with no pork, it caused a minor flurry of chatter and consternation between the 60-year-old woman with the orange dye job taking the orders and the 60-year-old woman with the maroon dye job working the kitchen. Both were exceedingly friendly, coming over to see if I would prefer extra bamboo shoots or seaweed as a replacement topping, and coming back repeatedly to make sure everything was OK. It's hard to express just to what degree Harukiya Honten is an old school neighborhood Japanese restaurant - there's not quite an analog in the US, at least not in this century. Besides the ramen, Honten had a full fold out menu with several kinds of soba, tempura, and donburi (rice dishes), and the staff seemed to be on familiar terms with most of the other customers, greeting them as friends and chatting a bit. Naturally, this is a great place to have a meal.
When the ramen arrived, it came on a laquered tray with the spoon carefully placed on a small plate to the side. Sure enough, the soup was dark brown and clear almost to the bottom, with shreds of onions, pickled bamboo shoots, curly medium-thick noodles and nothing else - it literally does not get more classic than this. Apparently one of the key characteristics of Ogikubo style ramen, as developed by the Harukis is the presence of an ultra-thin layer of oil floating atop the soup, which helps to hold in the eat until the end of the bowl. Although the gesture is nice, it resulted in more mouth burns than pleasure in my part.
Despite being such a simple soup, Haruki Honten's ramen is surprisingly complex and satisfying. With 75 years to develop and practice, all superfluous qualities have been eliminated, leaving only the pure, salty essence of ramen broth. About halfway through the bowl, it dawned on me - this is the style of soup upon which the Top Ramen Oriental Flavor was almost certainly based. The clear brown color, the salty, ever so subtly spicy taste, it was all there, but of course, better. The noodles differed from usual ramen noodles too, being a bit less dense with a bit more sproing. There's definitely a bit of fish stock (dashi) mixed in, proving that everything under the sun has already been done and the current trend of nouveau blended soup was already being done by the grand daddy of them all back before the Manchurian Incident.
After sitting and bathing in the 1930s atmosphere and enjoying the moment of eating a bowl of Tokyo ramen at its birth place, I got up, said my goodbyes and paid my check, heading down the block and around the corner to...Harukiya.
Chûka Soba Harukiya is a very different kind of shop than Harukiya Honten. Just down the road from the station, it sits in a shopping arcade, indistinguishable from any other ramen shop, save for the long line and the pedigree. When I rolled up, there were about 7 people in front of me, adding up to a 15 minute wait, but on my way out, the line had stretched to 10 or 15, which is probably par for the course, given the store's fame. Despite the fact that Harukiya Honten is certainly the older and the originator of the Ogikubo ramen style, Chûka Soba Harukiya definitely wins the PR game. They are close to the station, have a snazzy website, and are very aware of their status as one of the famous old shops of Tokyo.
While waiting, I noticed something I had never seen before - a sign asking customers to refrain from taking pictures inside AND outside the shop and explicitly forbidding the uploading of Harukiya-related pictures online. Umm, OK. I guess they understand the part of PR that includes control over the image. They definitely know what they are worth and what they can get away with, given the king's ransom they charge - although the basic bowl is pretty standard at 800 yen, prices leap from there, with wonton noodles clocking in at 1200 yen, and a large wonton noodle with extra pork at a whopping 1900 yen, or about 20 bucks for a single bowl of noodles. You've got to have a lot of confidence in your product to pull that one off. They also have takeout noodles!
Taking note of the highway robbery and the anal photography policy, I was all set to hate the new jack Harukiya. As the orderly came out to call in those of us waiting outside, I started to dread going in, feeling like I was waiting for the doctor, though perhaps this isn't so surprising given that said orderly was wearing an all-white smock and a surgical mask. Go figure. However, once I got in the door, things changed for the better. I had been expecting to be hustled through and treated as if I should be so lucky to get the chance to eat such a famous bowl of noodles, but this wasn't really the case at all.
I got the best seat in the house, right smack in front of the spot where the head cook loads up each bowl with soup and noodles while the assistant slaps down the toppings. Chûka Harukiya has the lowest counter I've ever seen, with no barrier whatsoever between customer and cook, allowing for a rare glimpse of full visibility of the whole process. It really is a shame photographs aren't allowed, because Chûka Harukiya is an incredibly photogenic shop. The no frills atmosphere, the array of different pastel-colored bowls corresponding to different orders, the grumpy-looking master cook spooning oily noodles into bowl after bowl inches from my face.
Perhaps the funniest moment of the meal (if you can call the second bowl of noodles in soy sauce soup in the span of 30 minutes a "meal") was when I looked to my right and I saw a middle-aged man in a long brown trench coat, the classic image of Terayama Shûji, the director of the play I was about to see. A good sign, I thought. I looked to my left - another middle-aged man in a long brown trench coat. I couldn't help but grin.
It only took one sip to realize that both Harukiyas are indeed working off the same basic recipe. Harukiya Chûka's noodles are a bit thicker, the soup a bit richer and more peppery, the onions a bit fresher and bigger, but none of that is really surprising given the broader clientele and higher price. Definitely savory, tasty, and, were it not for the presence of that...other Harukiya, very unique. If I was tasting both bowls blind I'd probably give the advantage to Chûka Soba, but god help me, I have to give my love to the old ladies with the dye jobs at Harukiya Honten. Chûka Soba Harukiya is a famous noodle shop, and despite its age, it's more or less the same as every other famous ramen shop. But Harukiya Honten is really something special - believe me when I say that they just don't make 'em like this anymore.